Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

University of Utah plans new research center to reduce maternal deaths tied to addiction

According to The University of Utah, substance use is the leading cause of pregnancy-related death for Utah women. A new National Institutes of Health grant will help help the university establish a new research center devoted to reducing those deaths.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
According to The University of Utah, substance use is the leading cause of pregnancy-related death for Utah women. A new National Institutes of Health grant will help help the university establish a new research center devoted to reducing those deaths.

Substance use is the leading cause of pregnancy-related death for women in Utah.

A $14 million federal grant will help The University of Utah establish a new research center — the ELEVATE Center in Salt Lake City — focused on reducing those deaths.

Utah’s project was one of 10 selected across the country for the National Institutes of Health grant, which will provide funding for a variety of maternal health research over a seven-year period.

The ELEVATE Center’s mission will be to find the best ways to help pregnant women and new mothers dealing with addiction. It will then share what it learns with medical professionals statewide.

“Addiction is biologically a chronic medical condition, just like any other chronic medical condition,” said Torri Metz, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at the university and the leader of the project. “Given that this is the leading cause of maternal death in our state, it's really important that we focus on improving outcomes for patients.”

The first few years of the grant will focus on the development of the center and working with initial partners, she said. That will mean training future clinicians at the university and eventually creating a clinic that specializes in caring for women with addiction both before and after their babies are born.

The work will extend beyond the university’s walls, too.

One pillar of the center’s mission, she said, will be its collaboration with Sacred Circle, a health care arm of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation that’s already serving Native populations and other underserved communities in Salt Lake City, West Valley City and western Tooele County. The idea will be to learn from them about providing culturally adapted care for Native mothers.

There will also be partnerships with two hospitals — Moab Regional Hospital in southeast Utah and Central Valley Medical Center in Nephi — to train medical staff in rural parts of the state about interacting with substance use patients.

In the latter years of the grant, the focus will shift toward helping the state as a whole.

“Our goal is then to really create a toolbox where we can take what we learned in that setting — what worked, what didn't work — and then be able to take that information and really distribute it to other clinics,” Metz said.

That’s a critical need in much of rural Utah, where it can be especially hard to access this type of specialized care.

Meghan Welchman is an intake specialist with Southwest Behavioral Health Center in St. George. That center runs an addiction treatment program specifically for women called Desert Haven, but it’s small — able to treat fewer than 10 patients at a time. And it’s the only women-specific program Welchman knows of in southwest Utah.

So if a pregnant woman or new mother calls in for help and Desert Haven doesn’t have an opening at that time, she said, the next closest option it can refer her to might be hours away on the Wasatch Front.

“We do what we can, but if we're full … then, you know, we wouldn't be able to get them in right away,” she said.

Having access to a program that understands the unique challenges these women face matters, she said. For example, finding child care can be a barrier that keeps some women from seeking help. Desert Haven allows patients to bring their young kids to treatment with them.

One of the big misconceptions that keep women from seeking treatment, she said, is believing their child will be taken from them if they admit they need help. Another is the outdated cultural stigma that pegs addiction as a moral failure rather than a disease.

A pre-pandemic report from Utah Valley University showed that in 2014 pregnant women in Utah were prescribed opioids at twice the national average.

“A lot of people, when they think of substance abuse or drugs, they automatically think of the person that is homeless,” Welchman said. “They don't have a broad idea that it really can be anyone … moms, sisters, wives.”

As a mother who’s in recovery from addiction, Sandie Shaw understands that journey well.

That’s a big reason why she now works as a recovery assistant at House of Hope in Provo, a program that specializes in treating women and mothers with substance use disorders.

“In my case, it was more than one prescription from the dentist, and then boom, you're hooked. And then what do you do?” Shaw said. “I would have given anything to have somebody guide me when my time came.”

While there are more treatment options for women today than there were when she sought recovery, she said, there’s still a big lack of awareness that help is available.

“It's hard to know how to take the first step,” Shaw said. “There's a lot of people out there who feel like they don't have a voice and that they can't get the help they need.”

She said more funding and focus on women’s addiction treatment in Utah is a hopeful sign that more of them will be able to take that first step in the future. Until then, centers like House of Hope and Desert Haven will continue to support recovery one patient at a time.

“My message would be to reach out for help no matter what,” Welchman said. “Know that there's people that will love them through it.”

Editor’s note: KUER is a licensee of the University of Utah but operates as an editorially independent news organization.

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.